By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Isaiah Williams vividly remembers Sherando's disheartening 56-10 loss to Amherst County in the 2007 Group AA Division 4 football state championship game.
Williams, just 12 years old at the time, was standing along the Warriors' sideline, watching as many of Sherando's players -- his idols -- left the field in tears after falling just short of the ultimate prize.
It's been six years since Sherando last appeared in that state title game, but it certainly hasn't felt that long for Williams, now a senior for the same program that he grew up watching as a kid.
So when Williams took the field with the rest of the Warriors in the first round of this year's Class 4A North regional playoffs -- against Amherst, no less -- he could hardly believe the opportunity he was getting.
"Next thing I know, I'm getting tweets from [former Sherando players] Joey Christine, Ross Metheny and those guys saying, 'You've got another chance,'" Willliams recalled after practice on Wednesday. "Joey told me he was coming back to watch me play, and that meant the world to me. He was a big all-state football player, full-ride going to Norfolk State, and he said he's going to come back to watch me play against the team that they lost to. And we ended up beating them pretty well. It meant a lot, and he said to just keep it rolling."
Sherando has kept it rolling, that much is certain.
Following the top-seeded Warriors' 49-15 drubbing of Amherst on Nov. 15, Sherando beat Liberty 34-12 in the second round. Last Friday, the Warriors halted Courtland's wing-T offense in a thrilling 27-20 win that set up a date with No. 2 Salem on Saturday in the regional final with a trip to the state championship game on the line.
It's been an unforgettable journey for Williams, who fittingly, more often than not, finds himself carrying the spear that the Warriors bring on and off the field during each home game.
"When I take the spear on the field, it means a lot to me. It really does. I try to hold myself together so that I don't get real emotional, because it's been a crazy ride," Williams said. "Seeing the kids before me and now I'm here and I'm doing it, it's been a lot of fun. I'm real appreciative of it."
Williams, the son of Sherando head basketball coach Garland Williams, has been around the school's athletic programs since he was a child, and he could often be found hanging out during the Warriors' football practices growing up.
It's Williams' long-running ties to the football program that makes this season extra special for the senior.
"I think probably Isaiah as much as anybody can appreciate the history and the tradition of Sherando football, and probably realizes -- and probably not to the fullest extent because he's still in the middle of it -- but he appreciates what it's taken to get back here," Warriors head football coach Bill Hall said.
Williams' impact on the football program run much deeper than his on-field presence -- just as the former Sherando players who came before him, Williams has made the ideal role model in the eyes of Hall.
"He always takes time to talk to the kids, whether it be my kids or anybody else's kids," Hall said. "It makes them feel like part of Sherando, and I think that's something that is special about Isaiah. He's a people person and my kids just think the world of him.
"I think the world of him, just because he is such a great kid and his success is the result of a lot of hard work and determination that he's put into it."
On the field, Williams, who made the transition from free safety to weakside cornerback this season, has been as critical a component as any on a Sherando defense that is allowing just 12.9 points and 82.7 pass yards per game.
Styling his play after former LSU and current Arizona Cardinals cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, Williams has embraced the "Honey Badger" persona that his teammates jokingly instilled upon him at the beginning of the season, even going as far as adopting the blonde mohawk that Mathieu made popular during his time at LSU.
Williams, who is listed at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, plays much bigger than his size. Williams is tied for the team lead with two interceptions this season, and he is third on the team in tackles with 61 (32 solo, 7 TFL), as he is often called upon to set the edge on running plays in Sherando's cover 2 defense.
"If they run a bubble screen or something, while the ball is in the air he's just breaking on the receiver so fast that as soon as he catches it, he's there," Warriors linebacker George Aston said. "He's also great at coming up and setting the edge when there's a sweep or something on a run play. He's a great open-field tackler. It truly benefits us."
Williams said it only recently hit him that his final season of high school football will soon be coming to an end. Whether his career ends with Sherando claiming its first football state title or not, it's truly been a memorable ride for Williams.
"I've been running into town, seeing parents, kids I don't even know wishing me good luck and calling me the "Honey Badger." It feels like I'm playing in the NFL Super Bowl," Williams said. "It's like a dream come true. If you would've told me four years ago that I would be doing this, I wouldn't have believed it, but I've worked hard with these kids and these kids have worked hard with me. I'm glad it's happening for this group of kids and the coaching staff we have."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD